Walking on Your Eggshells

Addicts & AlcoholicsBest ofRelationships

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Hi. My name is Laura and I’m in recovery from codependency.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself; shaping and sculpting how I want my life to be.  I’m pretty proud of the progress but hope I’m never done. It all started with recognizing my own dissatisfaction and unhappiness.  Then came the harder part – I had to care that I was unhappy. Discovering what came next would change my life. Beginning with tectonic plate shifts of change, I overhauled my relationships.   These days, it’s minor adjustments – I’m in the maintenance phase.

A note before reading further:

Codependency is specific to each individual. One thing I am sure of is that it takes two to tango. If you recognize yourself in what follows, chances are very good that the relationships you’re in, romantic or otherwise, are with fellow codependents. Partners and spouse hate to hear that.

Enabling Madness

While it started earlier than this, I’ll go back to my first marriage.  My default attraction has always been to alcoholics and addicts. My mother would say I ‘came by it honestly,’ – meaning the unhealthy relationships patterns that support active substance abuse, mental health issues, and codependency were woven into the generations of my family.  Alcoholics were especially familiar to me – the yin to my yang – and I knew how to navigate those relationships. I met the woman who would become my first wife when I was a tender twenty three. I welcomed and for many years, fostered, her drinking habit.

Why on earth would any sane person help a drinker keep drinking?  Well, when that’s the story you know, you keep reading and writing it.  I couldn’t picture a different way of being in a relationship. Heck, I thought this was normal and didn’t even question it.  There’s also the secondary gain of it all.  Active codependency requires focus stay on the ‘problem person’ so you don’t look at yourself.  My first wife’s drinking was awful, but for a long time, not as awful as taking a hard look at myself.

An ADHD Child is Too Much

If you’ve read my article on The Big Four, you’re familiar with the concepts of Too Much, Not Enough, If You Really Knew Me, and Everyone Leaves.  These are the core struggles everyone has that I’ve identified to date. We all have a primary style but they all apply at times.  Your temperament and life history shape which one becomes your default.  We can’t ‘cure’ these but we can manage them.

As a card carrying ADHD brain, I knew from a young age that I was a lot to handle.  As a child, I would talk your ear off – rightly earning the family nicknames, ‘Motor Mouth’ and ‘Chatty Cathy.’  Driven by an interest-based nervous system, my mother always said I’d go at something 110% then tire and drop it all.  Later, that would look flakey to others. Couple this with moving around as a child and having to establish new friends every few years and you get a breeding ground for low self esteem.  For a long time, it didn’t occur to me that kids who have gone to school with each other their whole lives would naturally be closer than a new friend. When I joined the girlhood friend hierarchy of ‘6th or 7th best friend,’  I thought it was me – I wasn’t good enough to be the numero uno bestie. This is the flip side of Too Much: being Not Enough.

What I’m Afraid Of

Many things had contributed to the internalization that I was ‘too much.’  My enthusiasm, thoughts, interests, and especially my intense feelings were all reflected back with this message.  Because of difficulties with disinhibition, an overlooked symptom of ADHD, my emotions came on fast and strong. I learned from others that I was ‘too sensitive’ and later that I ‘thought too much’ about things.

Using these worldly insights, my child brain came to think of myself as a hot potato that never cooled.  Other people could only toss me back and forth for so long until they needed a break. How long this break lasted is what I dreaded.  I kept my eyes peeled to scrutinize signs for danger. I figured out that irritation were precursors for ending time spent with me. If it got all the way to anger, I was a goner for sure.  Too many events like this surely meant that person would get fed up and leave for good.

Default Coping Mechanisms

As an adult, keeping others happy with my pleasant, undemanding demeanor (aka avoiding their anger) became my default coping mechanism.  Turns out, people pleasing is quite an effective, long term coping strategy. There are some byproducts though – mostly my own anger. Muting myself meant that *I* took the hit.  I had to swallow the bitter pill; made all the worse by taking on someone else’s problem behavior without the power to change it.  To the outside, this looked different as I aged. As a child, I was stubborn and angry. As a teen, rebellious and withdrawn. Finally, as a young adult, passive aggressiveness seeped out the sides of me, unknowingly confessing the true nature of my thoughts.  Frustrated, I believed belonging was only available to me if I contained who I was.

Staying silent keeps me safe and isolated from rejection.  At least most of the time. This strategy falls short once the world becomes complicated and dumps a few shitburgers in your lap.  Fast forwarding a decade or so into my first marriage, I’m in grad school, my wife is a functioning (now dry) alcoholic and our relationship lacks connection and intimacy.  Safe, right? Safe enough not to change. The thing about getting older, collecting old patterns, and psych grad school, is that old coping mechanisms start to fail. Like advancing water to a dam, the pain of taking the hits rises above the safety of retreat.

Reasons to Change

Sometimes it’s a pivotal moment but often it all just gets to be too much.  There’s a sea change and you begin to think and feel differently. In surrendering the fight, there’s a new freedom.  You can’t make yourself turn a corner any faster than you do. You can nudge it along with therapy and confiding in trusted others.  Once new insights start to sprout and take hold, this new perspective is all you can see. This is both comforting and daunting. On one hand, without some serious denial, you won’t backslide and are now resolute.  On the other, this confidence means you must act in your own best interest as it is no longer acceptable to take the hit.

In my marriage, it started small.  Little assertive soap boxes I’d reluctantly climb on for short periods of time.   But this becomes a pattern and teaches others what to expect with me. It translated to how I was treated.  Respecting myself fostered respect in others.

Over time, I stood up against the, now active, alcoholism, no longer supplying support by ‘cosigning the bullshit.’.  I communicated my own thoughts, feelings, and needs, even though I anticipated push back and invalidation. What came next was the inevitable truth – we were on two radically different pages.  We were individuals who wanted to go in incompatible directions. Lacking connection and intimacy for so many years, steering our respective ships back in the same direction was not in the cards.  This is a consequence of avoiding deep truths for so long. Perhaps the relationship would have ended much sooner if we’d been more honest but that’s not for me to know in this life. I’ve got to play the hand I was dealt.

Learning to Make Lemonade and Other Drinks

Old patterns do not go away; they just get patched.  I do my best to channel energy into squeezing out lessons from all the shit I’ve successfully made it through.  I know I’m succeeding because I’m still here and learning. I’ve found several workarounds for this faulty programming.  Concentrating on what I can do instead of what others have done, I see everything as an opportunity.  A FUCKING OPPORTUNITY, I tell you. Sometimes, it takes a beat or two to get there.  I am bound and determined that life, circumstances, and assholes of the world, will not get the best of me.  To drain my energy, I have to give you access to my mind through attention and occupying thoughts. I’ve staked a flag in my own territory and don’t give it up lightly.  I can still decide to remain silent but now a variety of other flavors grants me the liberty of making deliberate choices.

Life is too short to keep people in your life who aren’t on the same page.  Unless you must. There’s that crappy boss, unhealthy family members, or the flammable ex with whom you co-parent.  All you can do is to make choices that serve your guiding principles. Many times, it’s the harder route; like when you must protest unfair treatment on deaf ears.  Other times, you must check your own intentions, making sure your actions align with how you see the bigger picture. The good news is that you can shape your world.  You are listening – both when you speak out loud and to that small inner voice that says what’s really true.

Choices I Make Every Day

These days, I choose my battles.  My knee-jerk, go-to, default will always be to keep things to myself.  A lot of sorting through closets and keeping my growing edge sharp means I at least know the healthiest action in any given situation.  To speak up still risks a fight because I can’t control another person’s reaction. I don’t truly know what they are thinking or feeling.  My adjustments are simple – I use the Golden Rule and treat others how I’d like to be treated. I do this for my own integrity and not really for the other person.  

At my best, I approach potential conflicts as discussions and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Thinking, “Perhaps she didn’t know her actions would offend or hurt me.” I ask for information and clarity before boldly writing the story of ‘how it all happened.’  If, after my due diligence, I find that I am actually angry….or hurt, offended, anxious, sad, disappointed, etc…..then I communicate that as well. I don’t expect the other person to fix ME but they must have the information in order to have an opportunity to change themselves.  At my core, I am no longer enslaved to the belief that I must be smaller to belong. Though often pleasant, I’m at peace with not being liked because it’s not personal. One major gift from all of this pain has been an enduring sense of okayness.  I am confident that I am loveable (by my chosen people) and not generally too much to handle.  As cheesy as it sounds, I love who and what I am – mostly because I am now my own creation. I stopped living by the script I was handed, the one that restrained me like junior sized jeans from high school, and started writing my own story.

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One Response to " Walking on Your Eggshells "

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article! A very candid exploration of codependency.

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